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What Tuesday Night’s Republican Debate Means for Refugees

It's time for GOP candidates to prove they're serious about security—or not.

Angelos Tzortzinis / Getty Images

When a counterfeit Syrian passport was discovered near the mangled body of one of the killers responsible for the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris, the future of more than one hundred thousand Syrian refugees recommended for international resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees instantly grew bleaker. In the days after the attacks, intelligence experts confronted the possibility that ISIS infiltrators have tapped into the routes used by refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria to slip through overtaxed entry points into Europe in order to perpetrate violence in target countries. Now concerns have heightened again, due to an intelligence report indicating that ISIS has seized passport-making facilities and stockpiles of biographical data from the Syrian government.

Trapped between ISIS’s efforts to encourage tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims and legislators’ fears for American security are thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled their homes permanently. While the Obama administration has assured the public that our dual-agency screening process (explained in the video below by Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson) is tight enough to allow for the safe admission of a proposed Syrian 10,000 refugees—who undergo additional screening disclosed to Congress—how to respond to the refugee crisis has quickly become a deeply polarized partisan debate.

The issue has been complicated by conservative pundits and politicianswillingness to conflate the Middle Eastern refugee crisis with longstanding debates over illegal immigration, a turn most evident in the Trump campaign’s quick fade from anti-immigrant to anti-refugee. That has forced the refugee question into a broader battle over America’s borders, though refugees applying for resettlement in the United States are vetted and handled by different agencies than illegal immigrants or asylum-seekers. 

Imbuing the refugee issue with the twin anxieties of terrorism and border insecurity has catapulted refugee policy to the forefront of the Republican primary, with the remaining candidates each proposing solutions designed to instill a sense of security, perhaps at the expense of ordinary American Muslims living in a moment of particularly pitched rhetoric

So far, GOP consensus has centered around a temporary ban on Syrian refugee resettlement within U.S. borders until vetting procedures have either been improved or clarified. On a recent episode of Hannity, Jeb Bush called for just such a temporary moratorium, saying “if you can’t” assure the vetting process works, “then they shouldn’t come in”. (He’d previously suggested in mid-November that Syrian refugee resettlement should continue as long as refugees were “thoroughly vetted.”) Comparing Syrian refugees to a pack of dogs, Ben Carson also appeared to call for a temporary pause until we “have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are, quite frankly.” 

In mid-November, Carson called on Congress to halt all ongoing funding for Syrian refugee resettlement without disclosing whether or not the cutoff was meant to be temporary, saying “plenty of mistakes have already been made.” Lindsey Graham and John Kasich have also chimed in, proposing temporary halts on Syrian refugee resettlement, while Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie have all demanded bans without clarifying whether they would be temporary or permanent, with Christie infamously declaring he would not even allow “orphans under the age of five.”  

Ted Cruz, who may be emerging as the Iowa frontrunner, has proposed perhaps the most elaborate raft of anti-refugee programs, calling for a three-year moratorium on admission of any refugees from ISIS-controlled countries and for legislation that would allow states to reject particular refugees at will. The exception to Cruz’s proposed three-year ban would be Syrian Christians, who he says should be viewed “in a qualitatively different perspective” than Syrian Muslims, both because they are a small minority of Syria’s population and because “ISIS is engaged with persecution and genocide against the Christians.”

The notion of a religious test for refugee admittance has support among some GOP candidates, but not all: While Cruz, Bush, and Marco Rubio have gestured toward making special exceptions for Christians fleeing Syria, Carson and Rick Santorum have decried calls for religion-based admittance. Santorum aruges that Christians should be left in the region because “when we relocate Christians into the United States, we accomplish what ISIS wants, which is to rid the Middle East of Christians,” while Carson criticizes religious tests on constitutional grounds.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal so far has issued from (unsurprisingly) Donald Trump, who argued in a December 7 missive released by his campaign that all Muslims be prevented from entering the United States until “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Despite an avalanche of criticism from around the world, Trump has mostly doubled down on his position, with a few minor exceptions. Only Rand Paul has come close to matching Trump’s idea in breadth, suggesting that visas for Syrians and denizens of roughly 30 other countries be suspended, and calling for a 30-day waiting period to be instituted for “all entries to the U.S. in order for background checks to be completed, unless the traveler has been approved through the Global Entry program.” 

Despite offering a buffet of increasingly hardline plans for dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, Republican candidates have been, in many cases, scanty with specifics. Americans concerned about the safety of Syrians genuinely fleeing persecution in their homeland, as well as those worried about their own safety inside the U.S. , should look to Tuesday night’s Republican debate as an opportunity for candidates with bold programs to spell out serious details.

For starters, politicians like Cruz, who claim their preference for Christian victims of ISIS’s violence is based on a specific condition of religious persecution, should reckon with the reality of the region’s many other persecuted religious minorities, including Shia Muslims. A 2014 Amnesty International report on ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria identified “Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Yezidis, Kakai and Sabean Mandaeans” as ethnic and religious groups targeted by ISIS for either forced conversion or murder. Christians are certainly among those subject to ghastly human-rights abuses, but their plight is shared by other religious minorities who have also had their homes destroyed and lives endangered by ISIS. 

Cruz, Rubio, and any other GOP candidates claiming an interest in rescuing victims of religious persecution should explain clearly how they distinguish between the Muslim and non-Muslim groups targeted for destruction by ISIS, and why only some deserve the privilege of resettlement. Candidates who maintain that special exceptions should only be made for Christians should clarify how they would sort Christians out from the rest; if ISIS operatives are willing to lie about their place of origin and allegiance, it seems likely they would be willing to lie about their faith as well.

Another mysterious aspect of “temporary ban”-style proposals is the length of such a ban and what policy shifts would signal its conclusion. While the Obama administration has attempted to clarify its vetting process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, some details have remained classified, ostensibly for security reasons. All the candidates calling for a temporary ban on refugee resettlement until screening procedures are improved should spell out whether or not the Obama administration should be forced to publicly advertise its entire screening process despite potential security concerns. They should also identify the specific problems with vetting programs now in place, and how they would repair them. 

Screening for Syrian refugees already takes between 18 and 24 months, and includes the collection of biometric data and several repeated interviews with American security professionals, following initial interviews and screens run by the United Nations. If it isn’t possible to explain what level of screening would be sufficient, then it is difficult to imagine how the bans could ever be truly “temporary”—and in that case, candidates should cop to supporting de-facto permanent bans.

In all of the argumentation over whether to allow refugees in, little discussion has considered how to treat the refugees already resettled in America. There’s also been little talk of what would come after the end of a temporary moratorium on resettlement. Carson has argued that all Syrian refugees present in the United States right now—some 2,000 persons—should be subject to ongoing surveillance. Trump has suggested the creation of a database for Syrian refugees

But while bold strategies might please their base, Republican politicians should recognize that the Syrian refugee issue is a time-sensitive one, and that every moment wasted on polemics and grandstanding endangers the welfare of real human beings. If the Republican candidates really are committed to revving up heightened screening and surveillance programs aimed at accurately vetting and then admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq, they should provide step-by-step plans Tuesday night to signal that they are serious about both security for Americans and for the persecuted refugees waiting on our country’s doorstep.